Posts Tagged ‘materialism’


child-soldier-empty-roadOnly as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

(Century of Light – page 0)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the third post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (3 Components of Our Wreck). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

Reflecting on Quotations

We agreed in the first workshop that we would start the day today by trying out one way of building reflection on a quotation into our moments of quiet contemplation.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm. At the start, if it helps, we can use our rate of breathing to slow down our inward recitation of the passage we have memorised. When we are alone we can of course recite the passage out loud. If anyone has not yet memorised a passage it is fine to begin this process by reading it slowly and mindfully after settling quietly into a reflective state of mind.

Keeping our breathing steady and even, we should focus our entire attention upon each phrase as we read or recite it. As Easwaran points out (page 32) in his excellent book, in the end we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot getaway with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text. It is advisable to change the text we use each week to fend off the indifference which can come from overfamiliarity.

  1. Why would regularly experiencing the wisdom captured in words in this way be helpful to us?
  2. What was our experience like this time?

Group Work

Reminder: For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Group One Task

The Evidence of a Corrosive Cultural Climate

Pages 1: The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation – indeed, the abandonment – of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet – such are the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past.

This is a powerful indictment of our culture. We need to unpack some of the implications before we can move on to more positive perspectives.

  1. Where do see evidence of ‘the disintegration of basic institutions of social order’ and ‘the abandonment . . . of standards of decency’? Is there an antidote to this process?
  2. What do we think is meant by ‘betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty’? How might that best be remedied?
  3. Are any of the other points unclear in their implications?

Pages 3-4: The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. [Refers to China, India, Latin America, & Africa.] . . . Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished – starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end.

These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned – but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants – were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilising process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon – to be used, trained, exploited, Christianised, civilised, mobilised . . . . To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.

Additional Information:

In his book The Bottom Billion (2007) Paul Collier explains there are at least 58 countries worldwide trapped in poverty, as a result of factors such as incessant conflict or bad governance. The total population of these countries at that time was 980 million people, seventy per cent of whom live in Africa.

In addition we can factor in the abuse of children in various ways (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000):

Our children . . . . should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate.

  • Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially.
  • Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty.
  • This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere.
  • The social dislocation of children is in our time a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition – it cuts across them all.

It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are

  • employed as soldiers,
  • exploited as labourers,
  • sold into virtual slavery,
  • forced into prostitution,
  • made objects of pornography,
  • abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and
  • subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention.

Many such horrors are inflicted by parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

Additional Information from ten years ago:

26,575 children die every single day. Of the 62 countries making no progress or insufficient progress towards the Millennium Development Goal on child survival, nearly 75 per cent are in Africa. In some countries in southern Africa, the prevalence of HIV and AIDS has reversed previously recorded declines in child mortality. Achieving the goal in these countries will require a concerted effort. Reaching the target means reducing the number of child deaths from 9.7 million in 2006 to around 4 million by 2015. Accomplishing this will require accelerated action on multiple fronts: reducing poverty and hunger (MDG 1), improving maternal health (MDG 5), combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other major diseases (MDG 6), increasing the usage of improved water and sanitation (MDG 7) and providing affordable essential drugs on a sustainable basis (MDG 8). It will also require a re-examination of strategies to reach the poorest, most marginalized communities.

Trafficking in children is a global problem affecting large numbers of children. Some estimates have as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked every year. There is a demand for trafficked children as cheap labour or for sexual exploitation. Children and their families are often unaware of the dangers of trafficking, believing that better employment and lives lie in other countries. Most child casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns—as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. Indeed the word ‘infantry’, for foot-soldiers, can also mean a group of young people. What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars. In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200,000. And while children might be thought to be the people deserving greatest protection, as soldiers they are often considered the most expendable. During the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers, for example, were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.

  1. How do you think that we managed to disguise from ourselves the iniquity of what we were doing in all these areas for so long and why has Africa come out of it all so badly?
  2. Have we now moved past that period of exploitation, neglect and abuse, or is it still happening? If it is, why does it persist?
  3. If we have moved on to some degree, how did we do it?
  4. Why is the harm we have been doing to our children a crucially important issue for us to address urgently, probably as urgently as climate change if not more so?
  5. What does all this tell us about the size of the task still ahead, if we are to turn things round completely?

Group Two Task


Page 6: Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularisation of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Page 89: Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

Page 135: There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multiform it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilisation”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism – two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view.

Appreciation of the benefits – in terms of the personal freedom, social prosperity and scientific progress enjoyed by a significant minority of the Earth’s people – cannot withhold a thinking person from recognizing that the system is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has contributed its best to the advancement of civilisation, as did all its predecessors, and, like them, is impotent to deal with the needs of a world never imagined by the eighteenth century prophets who conceived most of its component elements. Shoghi Effendi did not limit his attention to divine right monarchies, established churches or totalitarian ideologies when he posed the searching question: “Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution?”

Page 136: Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces“. What meets their eyes everywhere is the destruction of moral foundations vital to humanity’s future, through gross self-indulgence masquerading as “freedom of speech”. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

These are key paragraphs for us to understand thoroughly if we are to grasp the importance and true nature of a more spiritual path forward.

Blake Newton

Additional Information:

From A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library):

Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, explains that he sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

Medina goes on to unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences.

For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

  1. Why do we think secularism and religious obscurantism might go hand in hand in the way described here?
  2. What are the achievements of American capitalism and what makes them so persuasive given the damage the system seems to be causing?
  3. How can materialism, dogmatic or otherwise, be effectively a religion? What are the parallels?
  4. What is ‘liberal relativism’ and how has it been fostered by a materialist world view? How does this philosophical and moral approach make such a perfect marriage with capitalism? Do we agree that this arrangement is bankrupt?
  5. Are market forces not really impersonal?
  6. Are science and materialism not really in tune?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Compensating Accomplishments

Pages 4-5: To point out the failings of a great civilisation is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. . . . . A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude – with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at the time – especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity.

Page 5: Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionising effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries.

  1. How do we feel about the advantages they quote? Why aren’t they enough to turn our society round and avert the crisis towards which we seem to be hurtling?
  2. In what ways do we think new scientific paradigms may have changed our perspective on reality?

Where now?

. . . . . As the twentieth century opened, Western civilisation was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world.

More on all this next time.

Read Full Post »

stockport-war-memorialIn one of the major newspapers in Montreal, where press coverage of [‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] trip was particularly comprehensive, it was reported:

‘All Europe is an armed camp. These warlike preparations will necessarily culminate in a great war. The very armaments themselves are productive of war. This great arsenal must go ablaze. There is nothing of the nature of prophecy about such a view’, said ‘Abdu’l- Bahá; ‘it is based on reasoning solely.’

(Century of Light – page 28)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the second post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (2 Inevitability of WW1). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

2. Inevitability of WW1 & its Aftermath

We will now be looking at two rather dark issues, but out of their sequence in Century of Light because of the session lengths. Next time we will be considering what, in general, are some of the key challenges we are facing: these, in a sense, provide the overall context for what we are examining today.

The slide into war has a complex set of causes and the aftermath has many interwoven consequences.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator: if the blended groups this morning worked well we can stick with them. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Group One Task

  1. Materialism, Science & War

A key component in the toxic mix of perspectives that led into WW1 was communism, with its messianic belief in the achievement of world revolution by any means no matter how violent (page 30):

The Communist Party, deriving both its intellectual thrust and an unshakeable confidence in its ultimate triumph from the writings of the nineteenth century ideologue Karl Marx, had succeeded in establishing groups of committed supporters throughout Europe and various other countries. Convinced that the genius of its master had demonstrated beyond question the essentially material nature of the forces that had given rise to both human consciousness and social organisation, the Communist movement dismissed the validity of both religion and “bourgeois” moral standards. In its view, faith in God was a neurotic weakness indulged in by the human race, a weakness that had merely permitted successive ruling classes to manipulate superstition as an instrument for enslaving the masses.

The advances in science that materialism had helped make possible, added other sinister components into the mix:

  1. Ibid: To the leaders of the world, blindly edging their way towards the universal conflagration which pride and folly had prepared, the great strides being made by science and technology represented chiefly a means of gaining military advantage over their rivals.
  2. Page 31: Science and technology were also exerting other, more subtle pressures on the prevailing order. Large-scale industrial production, fuelled by the arms race, had accelerated the movement of populations into urban centres. By the end of the preceding century, this process was already undermining inherited standards and loyalties, exposing growing numbers of people to novel ideas for the bringing about of social change, and exciting mass appetites for material benefits previously available only to elite segments of society. . . . . .
  3. Ibid: Beyond these implications of technological and economic change, scientific advancement seemed to encourage easy assumptions about human nature, the almost unnoticed overlay that Bahá’u’lláh has termed “the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge”. These unexamined views communicated themselves to ever-widening audiences . . . . and continued to undermine the authority of accepted religious doctrines, as well as of prevailing moral standards.

These two workshops are largely focused on negative issues, but are an essential requirement if we are to understand (a) the predicament of those who lived through this period, (b) the roots of the problem, and (c) the challenges that confront us now. There are some key questions we now need to address.

  1. Why is materialism so toxic? Why does it matter that it confidently asserts what is now widely believed in the West, that we are nothing but the product of our physical bodies and material circumstances?
  2. How is it, do we think, that science could so easily be commandeered to manufacture horrendous weapons, such as mustard gas, that would give us an edge in any conflict? Have we grown out of that kind of folly yet?
  3. The quotation lists the damage that stemmed from industrialisation, including the erosion of standards and the appetite for material goods. What other problems do we think we have seen from an increasing use of industrial methods on a global scale?
  4. In what ways does the undermining of religious standards matter?

Group Two Task

  1. The Costs of War

Page 32: It would serve no purpose here to review the exhaustively analysed cataclysm of World War I. The statistics themselves remain almost beyond the ability of the human mind to encompass: an estimated sixty million men eventually being thrown into the most horrific inferno that history had ever known, eight million of them perishing in the course of the war and an additional ten million or more being permanently disabled by crippling injuries, burned-out lungs and appalling disfigurements. Historians have suggested that the total financial cost may have reached thirty billion dollars, wiping out a substantial portion of the total capital wealth of Europe.

Even such massive losses do not begin to suggest the full scope of the ruin. One of the considerations that long held back President Woodrow Wilson from proposing to the United States Congress the declaration of war that had by then become virtually inescapable was his awareness of the moral damage that would ensue. Not the least of the distinctions that characterized this extraordinary man – a statesman whose vision both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have praised – was his understanding of the brutalisation of human nature that would be the worst legacy of the tragedy that was by then engulfing Europe, a legacy beyond human capacity to reverse.

Page 33: The ruinous reparations demanded of the vanquished – and the injustice that required them to accept the full guilt for a war for which all parties had been, to one degree or another, responsible – were among the factors that would prepare demoralised peoples in Europe to embrace totalitarian promises of relief which they might not otherwise have contemplated.

. . . . The deaths of millions of young men who would have been urgently needed to meet the challenges of the coming decades was a loss that could never be recovered. Indeed, Europe itself – which only four brief years earlier had represented the apparent summit of civilisation and world influence – lost at one stroke this pre-eminence, and began the inexorable slide during the following decades toward the status of an auxiliary to a rising new centre of power in North America.

These two workshops are largely focused on negative issues, but are an essential requirement if we are to understand (a) the predicament of those who lived through this period, (b) the roots of the problem, and (c) the challenges that confront us now. There are some key questions we now need to address.

  1. What do we think might have been, and perhaps still are, the signs of the ‘moral damage’ and ‘brutalisation of human nature’ caused by war? What part if any would the deaths of millions of young men have played in this process of brutalisation?
  2. The Bahá’í Writings and evolutionary theory suggest that a sense of justice or fairness is inherent in human beings. How would this have affected the way that the conquered nations experienced the ‘ruinous reparations’ and how might their sense of righteous action have affected the victors?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

  1. League of Nations & the United States

On pages 34-35 Century of Light explains the flawed process by which the League of Nations was set up and failed to function as a result. As Shoghi Effendi pointed out ‘It received its initial impetus through the formulation of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, closely associating for the first time that republic with the fortunes of the Old World. It suffered its first set-back through the dissociation of that republic from the newly born League of Nations which that president had laboured to create . . . ’

While the world must move ‘to the emergence of a world government and the establishment of the Lesser Peace, as foretold by Bahá’u’lláh’ the obstacles that still remain are many, and we will be looking at part of this process in a future workshop.

The League of Nations foundered on the rocks of other problems than simply the dissociation of the United States: ‘it could take decisions only with the unanimous assent of the member states’, and it failed ‘to include some of the world’s most powerful states: Germany had been rejected as a defeated nation held responsible for the war, Russia was initially denied entrance because of its Bolshevik regime, and the United States itself refused – as a result of narrow political partisanship in Congress – either to join the League or to ratify the treaty.’ It is in this context that we begin to look at the heroic efforts of a key Bahá’í figure.

Shoghi Effendi’s Ministry

A topic to which we will be returning for consideration in its own right is the station and role of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. For now we will simply look at the impact of the war’s aftermath on the world within which he had to work.

i) The Context of his Work

The most obvious factor impacting upon his work is that (page 43) ‘the first half of [his] ministry unfolded between wars, a period marked by deepening uncertainty and anxiety about all aspects of human affairs.’

The situation thus created was not all bad (ibid): ‘On the one hand, significant advances had been made in overcoming barriers between nations and classes; on the other, political impotence and a resulting economic paralysis greatly handicapped efforts to take advantage of these openings.’

An important potential positive was that (ibid) ‘There was everywhere a sense that some fundamental redefinition of the nature of society and the role its institutions should play was urgently needed – a redefinition, indeed, of the purpose of human life itself.’

Century of Light spells out some of the details of these possible positives, some of which are the reverse side of the coin of the period’s downside (ibid):

In important respects, humanity found itself at the end of the first world war able to explore possibilities never before imagined (my numbering).

  1. Throughout Europe and the Near East the absolutist systems that had been among the most powerful barriers to unity had been swept away.
  2. To a great extent, too, fossilised religious dogmas that had lent moral endorsement to the forces of conflict and alienation were everywhere in question.
  3. Former subject peoples were free to consider plans for their collective futures and to assume responsibility for their relationships with one another through the instrumentality of the new nation-states created by the Versailles settlement.
  4. The same ingenuity that had gone into producing weapons of destruction was being turned to the challenging, but rewarding, tasks of economic expansion.
  5. . . . . Most important of all, an extraordinary effort of imagination had brought the unification of humanity one immense step forward. The world’s leaders, however reluctantly, had created an international consultative system which, though crippled by vested interests, gave the ideal of international order its first suggestion of shape and structure.

Century of Light goes on to refer to the positive examples of Sun Yat-Sen in China and Mahandas Ghandi in India.

ii) Shoghi Effendi’s Perspective

There is a key paragraph on page 52 (my numbering):

The landscape of international affairs would, he said, be increasingly reshaped by twin forces of “integration” and “disintegration”, both of them ultimately beyond human control. In the light of what meets our eyes today, his previsioning of the operation of this dual process is breathtaking:

  1. the creation of “a mechanism of world inter-communication … functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity”;
  2. the undermining of the nation-state as the chief arbiter of human destiny;
  3. the devastating effects that advancing moral breakdown throughout the world would have on social cohesion;
  4. the widespread public disillusionment produced by political corruption; and
  5. – unimaginable to others of his generation – the rise of global agencies dedicated to promoting human welfare, coordinating economic activity, defining international standards, and encouraging a sense of solidarity among diverse races and cultures.

These and other developments, the Guardian explained, would fundamentally alter the conditions in which the Bahá’í Cause would pursue its mission in the decades lying ahead.

  1. In terms of the world as we understand it, how accurate do we feel this analysis is?
  2. What, if any, do we feel are the weaknesses of the many global agencies now in existence to effectively address the problems of the planet and of humanity?
  3. Do those weaknesses have any remedies?

(End of Presentation)

Group Work

Group One Task

  1. The Corrosion of Ungodliness

Century of Light describes how the Bahá’í Faith is gaining increasing recognition while the social fabric surrounding it increasingly disintegrates (page 59): ‘As the Bahá’í community was constructing administrative foundations which would permit it to play an effective role in human affairs, the accelerating process of disintegration that Shoghi Effendi had discerned was undermining the fabric of social order. Its origins, however determinedly ignored by many social and political theorists, are beginning, after the lapse of several decades, to gain recognition at international conferences devoted to peace and development.’ Alongside this comes an increased recognition of ‘the essential role that “spiritual” and “moral” forces must play in achieving solutions to urgent problems.’

That there is still prevalent a ‘corrosion of ungodliness’ is primarily, in the Guardian’s view, the ‘responsibility . . . . . of the world’s religious leaders. Bahá’u’lláh’s severest condemnation is reserved for those who, presuming to speak in God’s name, have imposed on credulous masses a welter of dogmas and prejudices that have constituted the greatest single obstacle against which the advancement of civilisation has been forced to struggle,’ while he acknowledges at the same time ‘the humanitarian services of countless individual clerics.’

Their mistakes have left a vacuum that had to be filled (pages 59-60): ‘The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organise experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.’

This is something that Bahá’ís must take into full account. Nowadays, in the Guardian’s words, ‘an idolatrous world passionately and clamorously hails and worships the false gods which its own idle fancies have fatuously created, and its misguided hands so impiously exalted…. Their high priests are the politicians and the worldly-wise, the so-called sages of the age; their sacrifice, the flesh and blood of the slaughtered multitudes . . . .’

Additional Ideas from John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology:

Page 184: [He speaks of] classical science’s de-spiritualised view of the natural world. Francis Bacon, an early classical scientist, provides a quintessential example of this despiritualised view. He wrote that nature should be ‘hounded in her wanderings,’ ‘bound into service,’ and made a ‘slave, while the goal of the scientist is to ‘torture nature’s secrets from her.’

Page 217: [cf Blackfoot Physics by F. David Peat): Quantum physics now supports a picture of the universe as a dynamic, indivisible whole in which everything is interconnected and interrelated. . . .

Page 223-24: . . . in a much needed move, Enlightenment intellectuals did much to expose the gross corruption of the worldly, power-seeking clergy of their time. Unfortunately, because of their ‘blind rationalism’ and their overzealous efforts to expose church superstition, fanaticism, and hypocrisy, they ultimately promulgated an antimetaphysical outlook that has done much to undermine the faith and spirituality of people to this day.

Page 226: Unbalanced materialism has ultimately resulted in a loss of reverence for life and has diminished our appreciation for the supreme values of life such as compassion, justice, unity, joyfulness, love, service, generosity, patience, moderation, humility – all of which lead to personal wholeness and add an essential richness, beauty, and purpose to life.

Page 227: Locke’s ideas eventually led to the establishment of Western economic values such as free markets, property rights, individualism, and self interest as the primary force that motivates the actions of individuals, and the idea that prices are determined objectively by supply and demand. According to Locke, the right to private property represents the fruits of one’s labours. Furthermore, he emphasises the idea that the purpose of government is to protect individual private property.

. . . . Unfortunately, as will be shown later, Locke’s ideas (as is the case with most Cartesian-Newtonian concepts) have led to destructive outcomes.

Page 230: In retrospect, considering all the defects of laissez-faire capitalism, it can be argued that had it not been for the eventual “interference” of government reforms, laissez-faire capitalism would have doomed, to this day, the European and American masses to industrial slavery.

. . . it is important to note that the alternative economic system of socialism is also fundamentally flawed. . . Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

Page 238: . . . . Herman Daly, a World Bank economist, and John Cobb, a Protestant theologian, . . affirm that the exclusion of religious and spiritual values from ‘economic science’ has had a devastating impact on people, communities, and the environment. They state, ‘Adam Smith himself emphasised in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the market [freemarket capitalism] is a system so dangerous that it presupposes the moral force of shared community values as its necessary restraining context.’

Pages 250-51: Holistic advocates, in contrast, insist that the entire global order must be transformed in order to honour the true spiritual potential of people. They assert that transcendent spiritual qualities make human beings inherently capable of great acts of altruism, love, generosity, and self-sacrifice; however, the current global order encourages the development of greed, self-centredness, competition, hedonism, and the like.

  1. Why might spiritual and moral forces be so crucial to solving the world’s current problems?
  2. Why is ungodliness corrosive? What is the evidence, do we think, for the idea that ‘the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organise experience’?
  3. The cost in flesh and blood of our idolatries was evident throughout the 20th Century. Are we still paying the same price for the same reason?
  4. Are the checks and balances that have been introduced to reduce the injustices of the untrammelled sufficient? If so, how do they work? If not, why not?

Group Two Task

  1. The Three ‘Crooked Doctrines’

Mixed Dictators v5We have already met one of these – communism – earlier today: the other two, according to Shoghi Effendi (pages 60-63), are Nationalism and Racism. These are among the ideologies that amount to being false religions in terms of the fanatical fervour they elicit from their adherents. He spells out the distinction between the latter two: ‘. . . . While sharing Fascism’s idolatry of the state, its sister ideology Nazism made itself the voice of a far more ancient and insidious perversion. At its dark heart was an obsession with what its proponents called “race purity”. . . . . The Nazi system was unique in the sheer bestiality of the act most commonly associated with its name, the programme of genocide systematically carried out against populations considered either valueless or harmful to humanity’s future, a programme that included a deliberate attempt literally to exterminate the entire Jewish people. . .’

Communism was, however, not well placed to claim the moral high ground: ‘For long years, the Soviet system created by Vladimir Lenin succeeded in representing itself to many as a benefactor of humankind and the champion of social justice. In the light of historical events, such pretensions were grotesque. The documentation now available provides irrefutable evidence of crimes so enormous and follies so abysmal as to have no parallel in the six thousand years of recorded history. . .’ As a result partly of the influence of these three pernicious perspectives ‘The brutalisation that the first world war had engendered now became an omnipresent feature of social life throughout much of the planet.’

Additional Ideas from John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology:

Page 112: As proof that such secular spirituality is highly dubious, consider the fact that many Enlightenment philosophers spoke eloquently about justice, equality, and liberty, and yet in the end, supported slavery, racism, classism, sexism, and genocide against American Indians.

Page 233: It is ironic that Marxist revolutionary Communists set themselves up as the primary mortal enemies of laissez-faire capitalism because, in actuality, Marxist Communism and laissez-faire capitalism are both extreme manifestations of the same Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

Page 235: Many fervent advocates of capitalism boast that the failures of socialist schemes prove the inherent superiority and basic soundness of capitalist theory. Such boasts are warranted only if one thinks that capitalism and socialism are the only two economic choices available to humanity. The fact that so many people have been conditioned to think that capitalism and socialism are the only two plausible economic choices clearly reveals the Cartesian-Newtonian stranglehold on the Western imagination.

Page 272: Based on an overall view history, it is clear that the Cartesian-Newtonian world view that began to emerge in the 1500s is a common denominator connecting all the following movements:

  1. The Scientific Revolution and the development of the Age of Science (from the 1500s until now);
  2. The establishment of the American colonies and the founding and consolidation of the United States – including the conquest of the Indians and the enslavement of Blacks (from the late 1500s through the late 1800s);
  3. The formal development of the ideology of racism – the ideology of White racial superiority and on-White inferiority (from the late 1600s until now); . . .

Page 274: In his book Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, [Historian Richard] Thomas writes,

American fashioned a special brand of political and moral compromise that helped it to rationalise both the conquest of the native people and the enslavement of blacks. Since America was not about to abandon slave labour or its policy of dispossessing the native peoples of their land, the only real and practical choice was to minimise the nature of it sins: blacks and native peoples (Indians) were not to be considered on the same level of humanity as whites; blacks were heathen and immoral, next to the apes in the scale of evolution. Gradually an ideology emerged in the United States and Britain which explained that white racial dominance was a blessing… Both countries began formulating a racist ideology to cover those moral contradictions that collided with certain Christian and Enlightenment beliefs [all men created equal, inalienable rights, et cetera]. . . .

He explains how the pathology of racism, as we now know it, can be traced to the conquest of American Indians and the enslavement of Blacks in the American colonies beginning in the late 1600s.

Page 282: One of the most tragic aspects of this [the 1950s] period is that some of it could have been prevented had American leaders acted with wisdom and courage. Sadly, even President Dwight D Eisenhower, the same man who, as a ranking general, had commanded great armies against the forces of Nazi oppression in Europe, publicly made it clear that he was not in favour of school integration and that he thought the Supreme Court decision requiring desegregation was wrong.

Page 344: Nonetheless, as seen in the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, it is unnecessary to adopt a moral relativist attitude to combat cultural imperialism and racism. The Bahá’í teachings assert that there are some absolute values such as justice and compassion, which apply equally to all the members of the human race irrespective of culture.

  1. How is it possible for huge numbers of human beings to commit such large scale atrocities?
  2. When we look around us now, where do we see evidence of brutalisation?
  3. How can people on the one hand advocate equality, as the founding fathers of America did, and yet at the same time condone slavery and effective genocide.
  4. What are the dangers of ‘moral relativism’? Does this mean there are no problems with moral absolutes? Are absolutes such as justice and compassion free from any of these dangers? If so, why? If not, why not?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

AND please don’t forget the memorisation practice over night!

Supplementary Material for Group Work

(to be tackled if there is time or deferred to Session 4)

Having confronted over the last hour or so the dark side of human reality, now we can begin to examine the flickering of various candles beginning to combat this darkness.

Group One Task

  1. Unity and the UN

Kofi+Annan+UNCentury of Light explains how even the darkness itself contains hints of potential light (pages 70-71): ‘At a relatively early point in the second world war, the Guardian set that conflict in a perspective for Bahá’ís that was very different from the one generally prevailing. The war should be regarded, he said, “as the direct continuation” of the conflagration ignited in 1914. It would come to be seen as the “essential pre-requisite to world unification“. The entry into the war by the United States, whose president had initiated the project of a system of international order, but which had itself rejected this visionary initiative, would lead that nation, Shoghi Effendi predicted, to “assume through adversity its preponderating share of responsibility to lay down, once for all, broad, worldwide, unassailable foundations of that discredited yet immortal System.”

The dimly discerned positives relate to the key concept we will be exploring more fully later (page 71): ‘If the change could not yet be described as an emerging conviction about the oneness of humankind, no objective observer could mistake the fact that barriers blocking such a realisation, which had survived all the assaults against them earlier in the century, were at last giving way. . . . . The years immediately following 1945 witnessed advances in framing a new social order that went far beyond the brightest hopes of earlier decades.’ The clearest example of this, they explain, (pages 71-72) is found when, ‘Meeting in San Francisco in April 1945 – in the state where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had prophetically declared, “May the first flag of international peace be upraised in this state” – delegates of fifty nations adopted the Charter of the United Nations Organisation, the name proposed for it by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. . . .’

This led onto (pages 72-73) ‘the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The moral commitment it represented was institutionalized in the subsequent establishment of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In due course, the Bahá’í community itself would have good cause to appreciate, at first-hand, the system’s importance as a shield protecting minorities from the abuses of the past.’

And even the shibboleth of national sovereignty had taken a hit (page 73): ‘[Concerning the trial of Nazi leaders] Although the integrity of the proceedings was gravely marred by the participation of judges appointed by a Soviet dictatorship whose own crimes matched or exceeded those of the defendants’ regime, the act set an historic precedent. It demonstrated, for the first time, that the fetish of “national sovereignty” has recognizable and enforceable limits.’

Most of what is said immediately above is straightforward history. There are two questions we might want to deal with briefly.

  1. Do we wish briefly to explore the nature of such prejudices as have caused great suffering not only to the Bahá’ís in Iran but to many other minorities elsewhere?
  2. Why does Century of Light describe ‘national sovereignty’ as a ‘fetish’? (Fetish means an obsession or idol in this context.)
  1. Green Shoots

Page 74: Beyond all the continuing educational disadvantages, the economic inequities, and the obstructions created by political and diplomatic manoeuvring – beyond all these practical but historically transient limitations – a new authority was at work in human affairs to which all might reasonably hope somehow to appeal. . . . [Once subject peoples were now being represented.]

. . . . As time passed, growing numbers of outstanding figures in every walk of life would escape the familiar limits of racial, cultural or religious identity. In every continent of the globe, names like Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Paolo Freire, Ravi Shankar, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Kiri Te Kanawa, Andrei Sakharov, Mother Teresa and Zhang Yimou became sources of inspiration and encouragement to great numbers of their fellow citizens. . . . . The world-wide outpouring of affection and rejoicing that was to greet the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent election as president of his country would reflect a sense among peoples of every race and nation that these historic events represented victories of the human family itself.

Question. Apart from the most famous ones in the list, ie Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela, do we know why the others are mentioned? What does this suggest about the possibility of a sea-change in world affairs?

Group Two Task

  1. The Cold War & beyond

After the second world war we moved into a period termed the ‘Cold War.’ Century of Light summarises the situation (page 87): ‘Hardly had hostilities ended than the ideological divisions between Marxism and liberal democracy burst out into attempts to secure dominance between the respective blocs of nations they inspired. The phenomenon of “Cold War”, in which the struggle for advantage stopped just short of military conflict, emerged as the prevailing political paradigm of the next several decades.

This tense stand off was in response to the atom bomb’s threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (page 88): ‘For Bahá’ís, the prospect could only bring vividly to mind the sombre warning uttered by Bahá’u’lláh decades earlier: “Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal.”’ The Soviet Union sought to capitalise on the injustices of colonialism in what was termed the ‘Third World’ while ‘the response of the West – wherever development aid failed to retain the loyalties of recipient populations – was to resort to the encouragement and arming of a wide variety of authoritarian regimes.’

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, materialism continued effectively unchallenged (pages 89-90): ‘impulses to devise and promote any formal materialistic belief system disappeared. Nor would any useful purpose have been served by such efforts, as materialism was soon facing no significant challenge in most parts of the world. Religion, where not simply driven back into fanaticism and unthinking rejection of progress, became progressively reduced to a kind of personal preference, a predilection, a pursuit designed to satisfy spiritual and emotional needs of the individual. The sense of historical mission that had defined the major Faiths learned to content itself with providing religious endorsement for campaigns of social change carried on by secular movements. The academic world, once the scene of great exploits of the mind and spirit, settled into the role of a kind of scholastic industry preoccupied with tending its machinery of dissertations, symposia, publication credits and grants.’

  1. How can we explain how religion in certain places at certain times slides into fanaticism?
  2. At the same time, elsewhere, it becomes a consumer fad. How does that happen, do we think?

Whether as world-view or simple appetite, materialism’s effect is to leach out of human motivation – and even interest – the spiritual impulses that distinguish the rational soul. “For self-love,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said, “is kneaded into the very clay of man, and it is not possible that, without any hope of a substantial reward, he should neglect his own present material good.” In the absence of conviction about the spiritual nature of reality and the fulfilment it alone offers, it is not surprising to find at the very heart of the current crisis of civilisation a cult of individualism that increasingly admits of no restraint and that elevates acquisition and personal advancement to the status of major cultural values. The resulting atomisation of society has marked a new stage in the process of disintegration about which the writings of Shoghi Effendi speak so urgently.

. . . . . However important the application of legal, sociological or technological expertise to such issues undoubtedly is, it would be unrealistic to imagine that efforts of this kind will produce any significant recovery without a fundamental change of moral consciousness and behaviour.

Page 91-92: . . . the unification of humankind under a system of governance that can release the full potentialities latent in human nature, and allow their expression in programmes for the benefit of all, is clearly the next stage in the evolution of civilisation. The physical unification of the planet in our time and the awakening aspirations of the mass of its inhabitants have at last produced the conditions that permit achievement of the ideal, although in a manner far different from that imagined by imperial dreamers of the past. . . . .

. . . . . That yet greater suffering and disillusionment will be required to impel humanity to this great leap forward appears, alas, equally clear. Its establishment will require national governments and other centres of power to surrender to international determination, unconditionally and irreversibly, the full measure of overriding authority implicit in the word “government”.

The quotations immediately above pinpoint precisely the opposing forces of integration and disintegration.

  1. In what way could ‘the spiritual impulses that distinguish the rational soul’ lead to ‘a fundamental change of moral consciousness and behaviour’ that would reverse the ‘atomisation of society’?
  2. How would such a transformation assist humanity to relinquish its attachment to the nation state and allow ‘national governments and other centres of power to surrender’ their authority ‘to international determination’? The current debate over the European Union helps give us a sense of what might be involved.

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

 Next time:

We will be examining the components of the wreck preparatory to inching towards an understanding of what we all need to do in response, whether Bahá’ís or not.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.

(From How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous by David Runciman – Guardian Friday 7 July 2017)

At the end of the last post I shared the hope that my helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until we discover the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups.

What we might do next is the focus of the final two posts.

When people resist therapy the personal price can be high. When cultures resist change the social and environmental costs can be even greater.

At whatever level we consider the matter, counteracting our default patterns requires significant effort, and the more complicated the problem, as in the case of climate change, the greater the effort. Even a simple puzzle can defeat even the best brains if the necessary effort is not taken to solve it. And often no effort is made because no failure in problem-solving is detected. Take this beautiful illustration of the point from Daniel Khaneman’s excellent treatment of what he calls System 1 (rapid fire reaction) and System 2 (careful effortful thinking) in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.I have dealt at length elsewhere with my distaste for the use of the word ‘intuitive’ in this context: I prefer ‘instinctive.’ Now though is not the time to delve into that problem: I’m currently republishing some of the posts dealing with that question.

The main point and its relevance is hopefully clear.

Biosphere Consciousness

Taking on the difficult problems is clearly going to be a challenge when we don’t even recognise or admit that our default reponses are so wide of the mark.

We need to reach at least a basic level of interactive understanding on a global scale if we are to successfully address the problems of our age. But we need more than that.

Rifkin, in his excellent book The Empathic Civilisation argues the case eloquently. He recognizes that to motivate us to make the necessary sacrifices to allow our civilization to survive its entropic processes we need something larger than ourselves to hold onto. By entropic he means all the waste and excessive consumption a growing population generates.

He doesn’t think religion will do the trick though.

For example, he sees the Golden Rule, a central tenant of all the great world religions, as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), version from the “Butts set” (for source of image see link)

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’ He feels Christianity has warped this ideal, especially in respect of the existence of Satan, the Fall of man, and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap. However, he dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society.

He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

He clearly hopes it does. He describes the exact nature of the challenge our situation creates (page 593):

The challenge before us is how to bring forward all of these historical stages of consciousness that still exist across the human spectrum to a new level of biosphere consciousness in time to break the lock that shackles increasing empathy to increasing entropy. . . .

And he concludes (ibid.):

In a world characterised by increasing individuation and made up of human beings at different stages of consciousness, the biosphere itself maybe the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race as a species.

This position is perhaps an inevitable consequence of his unwillingness to admit the possibility of a theological inspiration. I am astonished even more by a subsequent claim, which is imbued with the same blinkering assumption that Western materialist models of the world have basically got it right. He blurts out, in surprise (page 593-4):

While the new distributed communications technologies – and, soon, distributed renewable energies – are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. . . .

Does he have no awareness of current trends in holistic thinking, which assert that we are already and have always been interconnected at the deepest possible levels, not simply in terms of these recently emerged material factors? Is he ignoring long-standing spiritual systems such as that of the Native Americans whose foundation stone is this concept of interconnectedness? Does he not know of the empirical evidence being generated by near-death experiences, many of which include reports of just such a sense of nonmaterial interconnectedness? Has he not heard even a whisper of the Bahá’í position, admittedly recently emerged but with a longer history than the roots of holism in physics, that humanity is one and needs to recognise its essential unity if we are to be able to act together to solve the global problems that confront us? The problem is not that no one is offering a reason ‘why we ought to be connected’: the problem is that too few people are accepting the idea, expressed by millions of our fellow human beings in many complementary models of the world, that we are already deeply connected at a spiritual level, not just with each other but with the earth that sustains our material existence.

Naomi Klein makes a powerful case for hoping that the shock of climate change will have just the kind of positive effect that Rifkin looks for in Gaia, though she also is fully aware that shock often narrows our capacity to think, feel and relate and we end up in the tunnel-vision of fight and flight. She is aligned with Rifkin in his hope that identification on our part with the plight of the planet will be a sufficient catalyst to produce the desired shift.


Matthieu Ricard takes on these issues from a different angle.

There are major obstacles to addressing our challenges effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

Ricard (page 611) raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. Given that evolution has produced a human brain that privileges short term costs and benefits over long-term ones, such that a smoker does not even empathise with his future self sufficiently strongly to overcome in many cases the powerful allure of nicotine addiction, what chance has altruism in itself got of producing the desired effect?

Ricard to his credit faces this head on and quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

Shades of Pettigrew again! This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

According to Ricard, we must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

The last post will take a closer look at that amongst other possibilities.

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'Modern Times' (for source of image see link)

‘Modern Times’ (for source of image see link)

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts appear on consecutive days.

In the last post we looked at Paul Mason’s discussion of surplus value and some of its implications. What seems to me particularly important for present purposes is the way he teases out so clearly how this process is destined eventually, whenever eventually might be, to running out of road. There will be not enough labour involved in production to create enough surplus value to sustain the capitalist model.

Karlberg, whom I also quoted at length in the last post, is largely focusing on value-based and moral arguments and the evidence that supports them. While I find them compelling not everyone will, not least the average profit-centred believer in the market.

The special interest to me of what Mason says lies in the fact that it is, if true, a pragmatic argument. It suggests that it is in the interests even of those, whose drive for increasing profit is their primary motivation, to recognise that what they are seeking to do is not only ultimately unsustainable because of the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which seems a long way off;  unacceptable because of the costs in terms of pollution and climate change; and morally indefensible because of the debilitating hardships of the workforce. It is also unsustainable in its own materialistic terms. That capitalists appear to be in denial about the nature of their own reality does not diminish the power of this idea if it is true. Even if only partly true because it is only one aspect of a far more complex reality, the idea deserves a wider hearing than it seems to get at present and needs to be mnore carefully considered.

One of the reasons it remains so hard to prove is adduced by Mason himself in a different context in his book (page 271):

Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that… there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics, or traffic flows.

This is partly what makes debates about what major steps will most benefit the economy so flawed: there is no way exactly to predict what will happen in economic terms as a result of any specific option, so the power of the arguments lies then not in facts but in gut reactions, a very dangerous scenario. As a result, such debates, in any society with gross inequalities such as ours, can and frequently do reduce down to the pain and anger of the marginalised and disadvantaged being focused, by those seeking to influence them, on any convenient scapegoat as the cause of problems whose origin is far more complex.

We are often also blinded by our competitive materialism to the existence of other options and other arguments. Where do we go from here?

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Black Friday (for source of image see link)


From the point of view of us as individuals, given that the business world is largely blind to the problem, what can be done?

We don’t have to look far for a key component of the problem, which is to some degree within our control: consumption. An interesting article on the Bahá’í Teachings website looks at this from within the context of climate change.

That vast range of potential sea level rises, which our children and our grandchildren will inherit from us, will depend on our consumption of fossil fuels, food and material goods. If we continue to consume those things in the same way we have in the past, we will flood the planet’s shores. If we mitigate and reduce our consumption, by converting to renewable energy sources, eating less wasteful and more moderate plant-based diets and finding ways to control our runaway, materialistic habits as consumers, we still have a chance of averting the drowning of the world’s great cities.

Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha had these future conditions in mind when he said “The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it.

It is important to realise also that there are other admittedly embryonic models for how society could begin to organise itself beyond the purely individual level. A recent symposium on Strengthening Local Economies for a Just Global Order, was held on 23 February this year at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, India. Its speakers articulated where we might begin to focus our attention:

“When village economies develop, why must they be limited to either capitalist or socialist models? We are seeking to forge new patterns and new models.”

The University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Dr. Kanhaiya Ahuja, emphasized the need for economic models that would reinforce the values of community life, such as compassion, contentment, cooperation, justice, and a sense of duty towards the common good. “Unfortunately,” he mentioned, “at present economic growth is being driven by consumerism and competition that are destroying these values.”

Speakers also discussed the need for balanced and just economic growth, viewing development within a broader vision of the spiritual and material prosperity of humanity.

“Economic models today give humanity a very limited range of options in explaining human behavior,” Dr. Fazli said. “One is to explain it in terms of greed, self-interest, and profit motive. The other is to say that the only way to organize society is to have absolute equality.

To understand our power as consumers we could start with Ehrenfeld, to whose thinking I turn now. In Flourishing, a book which records his thoughts in an interview with Andrew J. Hoffman (page 151) he states:

Consumers can exert a great deal of influence over corporations, just like voters can exert a great deal of influence over the political structure. So as consumers start turning away from products that have been purchased to feed some addiction and can’t satisfy them, and seek goods to help them authentically care for themselves and others in the world, then they become able to push back very hard on corporations.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link


There are many encouraging signs that the prevailing wind might be changing direction.

For example, Ehrenfeld analyses in detail exactly where our mindless absorption with consumption has brought us and summarises it at one point as follows (pages 82-83):

Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”

But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.

As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.

Even our remedies unfortunately are flawed. Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion (page 11):

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements (pages 27-28):

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics (page 41):

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring (pages 99-100):

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.

Ehrenfeld (page 104) also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’ This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’

His thinking though does not stop there as we shall see in the next and final post in this sequence tomorrow.

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In the last post I ended up exploring James Davies’ perspective in his recent book Cracked. I was focusing upon his emphasis on relationships rather then medication as the more effective way to help those with psychotic experiences.


It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

This resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position as expressed, for instance, in Century of Light (page 136):

What [Bahá’ís]  find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.’

He quotes Bracken’s view on how this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Instinctive Incredulity

However, we are even further away from generally accepting that some experiences labelled psychotic may have spiritual dimensions.

Christina and Stefan Grof’s indictment of our civilisation in their book The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as Davies (page 235):

Though the problems in the world have many different forms, they are nothing but symptoms of one underlying condition: the emotional, moral, and spiritual state of modern humanity. In the last analysis, they are the collective result of the present level of consciousness of individual human beings. The only effective and lasting solution to these problems would, therefore, be a radical inner transformation of humanity on a large scale and its consequent rise to a higher level of awareness and maturity.

David Fontana also writes from direct experience of this painful level of materialism and its default stance of resolute incredulity when faced with any evidence, no matter how compelling, in favour of a spiritual dimension to reality. He had to combat it at almost every turn of his investigations. He even bravely admits to being contaminated by it himself. In the in-depth survey of his book Is there an afterlife? he writes (page 335):

My difficulty in writing about Scole [a long and detailed exploration of psychic phenomena including material effects] is not because the experiences we had with a group have faded. They are as clear as if they happened only weeks ago. The difficulty is to make them sound believable. It is a strange fact of life that whereas most psychical researchers interested in fieldwork are able to accept – or at least greet with open minds – the events of many years ago connected with the mediumship of physical mediums such as Home, Palladino, and Florence Cook, a strain of scepticism fostered by scientific training makes it much harder for them to accept that similar events may happen today, and may even be witnessed by those of us fortunate enough to be there when they occur. I mentioned in my discussion of the Cardiff poltergeist case… the struggle I had with my own belief system after seeing the phenomena concerned. When in the room while they were taking place I had no doubt they were genuine, but as soon as I began to drive home I started to doubt. . . . . The whole thing seemed simply unbelievable.

He adds:

It took a lengthy investigation, including one occasion when I witnessed phenomena while I was on my own in one of the rooms where the disturbances took place and the owners were two hundred miles away on holiday, before I could fully accept that poltergeist phenomena can indeed be genuine, and provide evidence not only of paranormality but, at least in some cases, of survival.

The Grofs articulate the challenge exactly (page 236)

The task of creating an entirely different set of values and tendencies for humanity might appear to be too unrealistic and utopian to offer any hope. What would it take to transform contemporary mankind into a species of individuals capable of peaceful coexistence with their fellow men and women regardless of colour, language, or political conviction – much less with other species?

They list our current characteristics in detail including violence, greed, habitual dissatisfaction and a severe lack of awareness that we are connected with nature. They conclude, ‘In the last analysis, all these characteristics seem to be symptomatic of severe alienation from inner life and loss of spiritual values.’

To describe it as an uphill struggle would be an understatement. Climbing Everest alone and unequipped seems closer to the mark.

They see at least one window through which the light of hope shines (page 237)

[M]any researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology believe that the growing interest in spirituality and the increasing incidence of spontaneous mystical experiences represent an evolutionary trend toward an entirely new level of human consciousness.

As we will see in the final two posts, our medicalisation of schizophrenia and psychosis might well be slowing this process down. If so there is all the more reason to give the Grofs’ case a fair and careful hearing. This will not be easy for the reasons that Fontana has explained.

Incidentally, after acknowledging that absolutely convincing proof of the paranormal seems permanently elusive, after all his years of meticulous investigation Fontana reaches a conclusion very close to that put forward by John Hick (op. cit.: page 327):

Professor William James may have been right when he lamented that it rather looks as if the Almighty has decreed that this area should forever retain its mystery. If this is indeed the case, then I assume it is because the Almighty has decreed that the personal search for meaning and purpose in life and in death are of more value than having meaning and purpose handed down as certainties from others.

In his book The Fifth Dimension, John Hick contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

More of that next time.

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Given my preoccupation with the need to reconcile religion and science and my recent rant against the way our materialistic culture denies the spiritual dimension, I couldn’t resist posting a link to this illuminating article by Peter Terry on the Bahá’í Teaching website. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Do you think of yourself as primarily a material person, or primarily a spiritual person?

If you’re more of a material person, you probably tend to focus on the outer world the senses can perceive—your natural instincts, your human drives and the physical world you encounter every day.

If you’re more of a spiritual person, you probably tend to focus on the inner world—your feelings and emotions, your intellectual life, the unseen but powerful reality of the human spirit.

Philosophers have named these two basic concepts materialism and idealism. Materialism (sometimes called physicalism) maintains that matter and the interactions that occur between matter make up the true reality of existence. Idealism (sometimes called spiritualism), on the other hand, concludes that the mind and the spirit constitute the fundamental basis of reality—that matter is secondary and less important.

The Baha’i teachings strike a balance between these two viewpoints, while emphasizing that the human reality is essentially spiritual:

As for the spiritual perfections they are man’s birthright and belong to him alone of all creation. Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy. This spiritual longing and perception belongs to all men alike … – Abdu’l-BahaParis Talks, p. 73.

Abdu’l-Baha spoke at length about this subject:

One of the strangest things witnessed is that the materialists of today are proud of their natural instincts and bondage. They state that nothing is entitled to belief and acceptance except that which is sensible or tangible. By their own statements they are captives of nature, unconscious of the spiritual world, uninformed of the divine Kingdom and unaware of heavenly bestowals. If this be a virtue, the animal has attained to it to a superlative degree … The animal would agree with the materialist in denying the existence of that which transcends the senses. If we admit that being limited to the plane of the senses is a virtue, the animal is indeed more virtuous than man, for it is entirely bereft of that which lies beyond … – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 177.

Those who reject or ignore the realm beyond the senses, Abdu’l-Baha said, miss the most important part of human existence:

Therefore, if it be a perfection and virtue to be without knowledge of God and His Kingdom, the animals have attained the highest degree of excellence and proficiency. – Ibid., p. 262.

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A passion to cage the invisible by visible methods continues to motivate the science of psychology, even though that science has given up the century-long search for the soul in various body parts and systems.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 92)

In the last post I looked at some of the ways in which the arrogance of our convictions creates problems for us all, a theme triggered by excellent books on the afterlife by Fontana and Kean, who both emphasise the way our culture dismisses compelling evidence that supports the idea of the transcendent.

Basically, human beings are prone to asserting their unexamined convictions in the face of contradictory evidence.

One important reason for this has been labelled confirmation biasShahram Heshmat, in a Psychology Today article, explains:

[This] occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.

This tendency is not much of a problem when the belief in question does no harm. When beliefs do damage, this tendency is fundamentally unacceptable, especially if the beliefs spread, as they often do, and when our sense of self is deeply invested in them.

What do I mean by that exactly?

To answer that question, at least in part, let’s come back to the issue of the afterlife.

Fontana writes (page 94):

Just as once the multitudes were persuaded by the priesthood they had no right to approach the divine except through the intermediation of the church, so the multitudes are now persuaded by the materialistic creed of our times that they have no right to approach mental life except through the intermediation of those who put their faith in prescription drugs and brain scans.

Those who have invested their credulity in scientism plainly do not see that they are operating just like a Holocaust denier. Denial and arrogant ignorance is toxic enough when applied to the facts of history, and could potentially create the conditions for a repetition of the same abusive genocide. Denial of our spiritual dimension allied to a denigration of our more extraordinary experiences is not just potentially destructive, it is actually damaging huge numbers of people already, as previous posts on this blog have explored.

One short quote from James Davies’s book Cracked in support of this contention will have to suffice here. He is addressing the issue of our exportation of our psychiatric model to the rest of the world. In the chapter dealing with the export issue he first summarises his case up to that point (page 258 – square brackets pull in additional points he has made elsewhere):

Western psychiatry has just too many fissures in the system to warrant its wholesale exportation, not just because psychiatric diagnostic manuals are more products of culture than science (chapter 2) [and have labelled as disorders many normal responses to experience], or because the efficacy of our drugs is far from encouraging (Chapter 4), or because behind Western psychiatry lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature and the role of suffering of often questionable validity and utility (Chapter 9), or because pharmaceutical marketing can’t be relied on to report the facts unadulterated and unadorned [and its influence has helped consolidate the stranglehold of diagnosis and a simplistic psychiatric approach] (Chapter 10), or finally because our exported practices may undermine successful local ways of managing distress. If there is any conclusion to which the chapters of this book should point, it is that we must think twice before confidently imparting to unsuspecting people around the globe our particular brand of biological psychiatry, our wholly negative views of suffering, our medicalisation of everyday life, and our fearfulness of any emotion that may bring us down.

Not an entirely healthy approach to human experience then. Hillman defines the problem neatly (page 184):

If a culture’s philosophy does not allow enough place for the other, give credit to the invisible, then the other must squeeze itself into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional world view by which they are judged.

So, the widespread self-serving disparagement of the evidence in favour of an afterlife is just one troubling symptom of a prevalent materialistic disease.

It does not have to be so. There is a remedy and it is a matter of urgency that enough of us come to recognise that.

For a start, an important principle of my faith asserts that religion and science are in harmony, something I have  explored at length on this blog in the work of Alvin Plantinga and am republishing currently.

The third principle or teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the oneness of religion and science. Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 106)

Moreover, in the Bahá’í view the existence of the spiritual dimension is supported by evidence, though such a proposition is not one that is widely accepted.

If you should ask a thousand persons, ‘What are the proofs of the reality of Divinity?’ perhaps not one would be able to answer. If you should ask further, ‘What proofs have you regarding the essence of God?’ ‘How do you explain inspiration and revelation?’ ‘What are the evidences of conscious intelligence beyond the material universe?’ ‘Can you suggest a plan and method for the betterment of human moralities?’ ‘Can you clearly define and differentiate the world of nature and the world of Divinity?’ — you would receive very little real knowledge and enlightenment upon these questions….

The intellectual proofs of Divinity are based upon observation and evidence which constitute decisive argument, logically proving the reality of Divinity, the effulgence of mercy, the certainty of inspiration and immortality of the spirit. This is, in reality, the science of Divinity

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 326)

Stewart in his home studio: for source of image see link.

The two books under consideration here provide a plethora of hard evidence for the reality of some kind of transcendent dimension. Kean’s account of her direct experience of  Stewart Alexander’s mediumship is just one of many such pieces of evidence (pages 321-344). It contains much that would trigger the incredulity of a convinced and dogmatic sceptic, including physical manifestations: however the conditions under which these phenomena occurred make it hard, perhaps virtually impossible to dismiss them out of hand.

She quotes Fontana in their defence (page 326):

Despite his distaste for travel, Stewart has held séances in Scotland and Wales, as well as Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. He has sat for sceptics, researchers, and parapsychological organisations. For these public sittings, he was often bodily searched, and his chair and every aspect of the various rooms were thoroughly searched. ‘Apart from the very few and unconvincing accusations made against him by ill-informed individuals,’ David Fontana wrote in 2010, ‘Stewart’s long career has been free from attempts to cast doubt on the genuine nature of the phenomena associated with his mediumship.’

In fact, the evidence in favour of this transcendent reality has often been more rigorously generated and seems more convincing, in my view, than that which recommends our ingestion of chemicals with a multitude of unpleasant effects in addition to their dubious benefits.

Kean’s words towards the end of her book seem a good place to stop (page 360):

No matter where the force that produces these extraordinary phenomena comes from, any intellectually honest person who studies the literature and engages directly with authentic, skilled mediums cannot deny that psi is real. . . . . I’m not a scientist, but I would think that if consciousness is nonlocal and there are nonphysical realms, these would naturally exist outside the confines of the material world and would therefore not be subject to the laws of physics. My only request of those who deny any of this is possible is to simply look at the evidence with an open mind.

Where the afterlife is concerned, there would be no better place to start such an investigation than these two books. There are of course other issues to explore. For the deficiencies of psychiatry James Davies and Richard Bentall are to be highly recommended: in terms of our econocracy Earle et al’s book is a good one.

Whatever area we want to explore we need to ‘look [and look hard] at the evidence with an open mind’ if we are not simply to be dupes of our prevailing materialistic, consumer oriented, economic-growth-is-good mythology.

Oh, and I’ll be looking at mythology again in the next post or two.

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